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Issue 14 Autumn 1996

Social Research Update is published quarterly by the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH, England. Subscriptions for the hardcopy version are free to researchers with addresses in the UK. Apply by email to

Paying respondents and informants

Sonia Thompson

Sonia Thompson is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Derby on the Youth and Community Work course in the School of Health and an Associate Lecturer at the Open University. She has a degree in Psychology, a Certificate in Education and a Masters in Policy Organisation and Change. Her research interests include gender, 'race' and community.

Key points

The nature of the research process has implications for those being researched. For instance, less powerful groups are more likely to be considered to have social problems and hence to be subjects for investigation. They are also less able to protect themselves from being researched and face greater difficulties in re-framing research issues in ways which would be favourable to them as a social group. Feminist researchers have been particularly concerned to draw out the issue of power relations between the researcher and the researched (Roberts 1981, Stanley and Wise 1993, Hammersley 1995). For example, Oakley (1981) stresses the implications of the hierarchical relationship between interviewer and interviewee.

Black women in the underdeveloped world certainly fall into the category of the less powerful in the broadest sense of the term (Cock 1989). Processes including the feminisation of poverty (Scott 1984) and the continuing inequality of the global economic order (Henshall-Momsen 1991) have not only shaped social investigations concerned with black women's life experiences but have also influenced who is in control of research on them. Researching the experiences of these women calls for a reconsideration of some of the investigative approaches ordinarily used in Western societies (Bunster and Young 1985, Latapi 1988, Sen and Grown 1987). This Update draws attention in particular to financial issues and asks what role payment should play in the recruitment of research participants from less powerful groups.

The conventional approach

The conventional relationship of the researcher to the research process is characterised by constraint, control and limitation. Researchers frame the problem to be investigated, operationalise concepts as they know and see them, design the methods of investigation, structure the mode of analysis and present the results in their own language and to a limited audience.

One example of such hierarchical control is that interviewers are typically reminded of the need to restrict themselves to the task at hand, to engage with the respondent but not to become familiar, to build rapport but not to become a friend. The intention is to direct the flow of information from the interviewee to the interviewer. If interviewees step outside their ascribed role by asking questions before the interview has finished, interviewers should not supply their own views on the topic but divert attention until the material has been gathered. Otherwise there is a danger of the results becoming contaminated (Sjoberg and Nett 1968).

Another example is the traditional attitude to paying respondents for their participation in research. It is often assumed that payments will result in bias. The conventional view is that the only valuable respondent is one who is willing to engage in the prescribed hierarchical relationship, which necessarily includes the donation of time for the benefit of the social sciences. When money and exploitation is the subject matter of the study, the issue of payment comes into particularly sharp focus.

Payments in survey research

The issue of payment for respondents has in the main been the concern of those conducting surveys, where payments have been made to maximise the response rate and reduce the risk that non-respondents will differ significantly from respondents. Heberlein and Baumgartner (1978) suggest that the most important factors in generating high return rates in mailed surveys are providing pre-paid return envelopes and offering monetary incentives. Payments are also often advocated when complicated or detailed information is required such as in family expenditure surveys. Kemsley (1969) found that a response rate of 71 per cent was obtained for the UK Family Expenditure Survey when payments were made to the respondents even though a detailed response was required from all family members aged over 16, including keeping a diary of personal expenditure for a fortnight and answering several questionnaires. This compares with response rates of 35 and 55 per cent for the similar 1951 and 1968 National Food Surveys where no payments were offered. There is also evidence from the commercial world to suggest that a nominal payment or free gift or sample is a successful incentive to participants when complex information is required. Neverthless, despite the success of payment schemes in surveys, there has tended to be a move away from the payment of respondents where research is particularly concerned with explaining social phenomena, because payments are believed to increase the possibility of contamination or bias.

Power and paying for participation

Payments are rarely considered in designing qualitative research. This may be because the researched are often those lacking the power to insist on being compensated for their time, as experts or consultants on their own values, knowledge, skills and experiences. As Madge (1975, p. 145) notes,
interviewees may be selected because he (sic) is in a position of authority; or because he possesses special knowledge about other people or things; or because he is one of a class of people in whom the scientist is interested.
Payment can be one way of recognising and beginning to equalise such power relations.

It is not invariably the case that respondents deserve to be paid. For example, when it comes to socially powerful people (who in global terms tend to be white, male, and middle-class) payments are unlikely to be desirable. Not only would it be impossible to recompense a managing director of a multi-national company at a level which would not seem derisory, it would be unnecessary to attempt to redress a power imbalance in favour of such a respondent. Because of the variations in the relative power of the researched and the researcher, there cannot be a prescription for the amount of payment which should be offered to participants and the issue of payment will need to be resolved on a case by case basis. Researchers should consider the possibility of building the cost of payments into research bids.

A case study of paying respondents

What follows is a brief discussion of an unpublished study carried out in Jamaica over a six week period. It will be used to consider some of these issues about paying respondents.

The study centred on the relationship between two groups of women, domestic workers or 'helpers' and their employers, where one set was involved in exploiting the labour of the other. To ignore the central importance of money to these exploited women while treating their economically vulnerable situation as the subject matter of the interview would have risked making the research part of their further exploitation.

The study examined the work experiences and the coping strategies of helpers. These workers are crucial to the labour market in a number of ways, forming part of the fabric of the Jamaican economy (Mohammed 1986). The contributions they make to the country are central to tackling Jamaica's debt crisis, allowing middle-class women to contribute to the paid work force in large numbers. The term 'helper' is a Jamaican one. The job involves working in another person's home to do some or all of the tasks which we understand as housework. Some helpers are unwilling to engage in some types of work and so it is not unusual to find a household which employs a full-time helper and a part-time 'washer-woman'. The position occupied by such women in the labour markets of developing countries has no real equivalent in industrialised nations.

Data were collected from a small sample of ten Jamaican women who identified themselves as helpers, their ages ranging from 28 to 60 years. Their opportunities in the labour market were limited by lack of qualifications, the absence of capital to set up in business and by the social structuring of skill. All the women, whether they worked as live-in helpers or not, had dependents and they valued the relative flexibility of the helper role.

The participants were selected through a snowballing technique and the data were gathered using semi-structured interviews and non-participant observation. The women were paid the equivalent of one and a half day's pay at the minimum wage level at the end of the interview, in cash. In setting the amount of the payment, an attempt was made to strike a balance between the low value of the Jamaican dollar and under-valuing their skills as women workers in the public and private domains. All the women were told that they would be paid for their involvement in the research and all expressed pleasure that I was interested enough in their stories to document them. None of them refused payment or expressed dissatisfaction with the amount given.

It was found that that the women were engaged in a range of tasks broader than housework and more akin to what is generally understood in the Western world to constitute women's work within the home. None of the helpers possessed written employment contracts. Many of them began early and worked long hours (9 to 10 hours) with some live-in helpers working almost round the clock six days a week. They had few rights and holidays were minimal. On the whole they found their employers' behaviour fickle and the rate of pay derisory, especially when compared with the very high cost of living.

One of the characteristics of the job was the subsidising of meagre wages by payments in kind, a form of gift-giving which was offered on an irregular basis in addition to the agreed financial remuneration, for example, 'something for the children', a snack on arrival, fruit from the garden, or being allowed to arrive a little late or a little early because of child-care difficulties. Payments in kind tended to mask the helpers' low incomes. The payments caused difficulties in managing the helpers' home budgets, restricted their ability to build up their financial reserves and functioned to increase their identification with their employer. Coser's (1974) work on greedy institutions and Cheal's (1988a, b, c) notion of the gift economy suggest that women as employers and employees are better able to manage their complex inter-relationship because of the gender specific skills they have developed in negotiating the moral and gift economies.

The realities of research

If the conventional approach to research were to be applied to this situation, the question of financial payment would never be entertained. However, given that the research targeted poor women and centred on their working relationship with those who exploit their labour, the research process itself would have contributed to their financial pressures and put strains on them by taking time away from other essential tasks.

The role of helper is tied up with the gendered construction of skill (Boserup 1970), where domestic work is considered as low status or non-work and therefore low or un-skilled. As these women are already under-paid, failing to acknowledge the parallels between the research process and their employment would be oppressive. The only alternative to financial payment would have been payments in kind with an inevitable association with the employer-employee relationship.

Whether the payments made a difference to the data is a complicated matter. First, there is the question of whether the women provided the answers they assumed I wanted. However deciding exactly what was required would not have been a simple matter. While I shared some of the characteristics of their employers, being a woman, middle-class and of Jamaican origin, I was also a researcher and a foreigner brought up, educated, and resident in England. Some of the respondents were more vocal than others and these tended to be the younger ones who had a more assured concept of their worth to themselves, their families and the labour market. Others were more reticent but were still willing to discuss what they experienced as mistreatment by their employers. All of them expressed some understanding of the dilemmas faced by their employers as women managing a family home in Jamaica. It is possible that this may have been an indication of their desire to please a middle-class woman interviewer. On the other hand, they were also able to state quite clearly what was wrong with their job (hours and duties), and their relationship with their employer (which they identified to be one of exploitation). The payments may also have increased the likelihood that respondents would suggest another person to contact and therefore the overall number of people willing to be involved in the research.

In contrast to the conventional arguments about the perils of paying respondents, there were some evident advantages. The helper's skills as paid workers and managers of families with minute budgets could be acknowledged in the research. In valuing the time that the helpers were willing to contribute to the research by compensating them for their contribution, the researcher gained access to their knowledge and experience as part of a consultative process. While it is possible that the payments led to the participants providing what they believed to be appropriate opinions, this must be weighed against two advantages:

First, payments helped to avoid the bias which might have resulted from the omission of those who declined to participate because they put a greater value on their time, energy and views.

Second, one must be mindful that work conducted in a particular way alerts the researched about the investigator's values. It leaves residues about how participants are valued by those in control of the study. This can create its own form of bias, perhaps skewing the results in favour of those women who might place less value upon their own time and skills and therefore be less aware of their exploitation as workers.


Although every effort should be made to avoid bias, the reality is that some will inevitably affect aspects of the research process. This Update has argued that the dangers of making payments to respondents can be outweighed by the gains, both by reducing bias and by compensating for power differentials between the researcher and the researched. The advantages of making payments apply not only to survey research, where there is already experience of the merits of paying respondents, but also to qualitative research, where payments to informants are rarely considered.


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Cheal D. (1988b) 'The post modern origins of ritual'. Journal for the theory of social behaviour. 18, 26990.

Cheal D. (1988c) The Gift Economy. London and New York: Routledge.

Cock J. (1989) Maids and Madams: domestic workers under apartheid. London: The Women's Press.

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Hammersley M. (1995) The Politics of Social Research. London: Sage.

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Mohammed P. (1986) 'Domestic workers' in Ellis P., Women of the Caribbean Zed Book.

Oakley, A. (1981) 'Interviewing women : a contradiction in terms' in Roberts H. (ed.) Doing Feminist Research London and New York: Routledge.

Scott H. (1984) Working your way to the bottom: the feminization of poverty. London: Pandora Press.

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Sjoberg G. and Nett R. (1968) A Methodology for Sociological Research. New York: Harper and Row.

Stanley L. and Wise S. (1993) Breaking out again: feminist ontology and epistemology. London: Routledge.

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Edited by Nigel Gilbert.

Autumn 1996 © University of Surrey

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